American Conquest

10The Great Pixel Wars of the 16th Century.

A game set against the backdrop of New World conquest and turmoil is just the shot in the arm the real-time strategy genre could use right now, but unfortunately the trappings of colonial America are far outweighed by those of modern European game design in GSC Game World’s American Conquest. It lets you play as one of twelve factions ranging from the British, Spanish, or American colonists (anachronistically referred to as “USAâ€) to the Iroquois, Sioux, or Inca tribes.

Though the Native American factions outnumber the Europeans eight to four, all but one of the single-player campaigns has you playing as a European. The number of different units is mind-boggling, and the game does a good job of conveying distinct architectural styles amongst the various tribes. The Amerinds are well balanced against the Europeans even without the benefit of cavalry (they produce more units faster), and the AI in general is crafty even on lower difficulty settings. Forging alliances with neutral tribes in exchange for troops or raw materials adds an occasional layer of diplomacy.

11Eight brief but engaging single-player campaigns cover Columbus’s voyages, Pizarro’s massacre of the Incas, and the Revolutionary War as seen from both sides. Though the missions don’t always seem directly related to the historical “cutscenes†and your objectives are sometimes vague, they nicely cover diverse ground and provide an effective tutorial of basic game mechanics. These are supplanted by nine non-campaign single player missions and six historical battles in multiplayer mode for an admirable grand total of forty-two.

Neither quantity nor authenticity is the issue. What really sinks the game is an overly arcane interface that sacrifices accessibility for tactical depth. The manual fritters away its slender page count with detailed instructions on which combo of icons will bestow a marginal combat bonus, as opposed to, say, a tech tree or a list of utilitarian base structures and their functions. A hotkey brings up a menu that lets you know what a unit’s fears of fire and mobs are within a tenth of a percentile, and it’s nice to know that 160 riders in line formation have +1 attack bonus over 90 riders. Creating and organizing formations of gobs of guys has never felt less intuitive or employed smaller, less distinguishable icons covered with mini hieroglyphics.

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Gaps in logic and just plain gaps keep slapping you in the face. Your units fire through windows, which means building facing matters, but you can’t modify this prior to construction the way the Founding Fathers did. There’s no defensive mode for your troops, or a hotkey for attack-move, or sound effects when you create units. From time to time packs of giant animals shows up arbitrarily and decimate most of your peasants. An 18th century officer can’t make a formation if his drummer’s from the 17th century. Structures producing troops can’t fire at the same time with their garrisons. There’s no shared vision option. You can’t set waypoints. Worst of all is the unconscionable holdover that made even admirers of Cossacks’ teeth grind: the oily fog of war that submerges already explored terrain, rendering scouts useless.

12Then there are the visuals. The sight of warring armadas is stirring. Too bad it’s not a nautical warfare game. The money shots promised on the box, namely hordes in the tens of thousands of redcoats and rebels shooting each other, look like indistinct pixel wars ingame. Inchoate clouds of whooping blobs roil, merge, and burst. Your main structure, the fort, is so enormous that even at the highest resolution it fills the entire screen. Overall, American Conquest is a loud bloody cartoon packaged in a scratchy history lesson. It’s charming and irritating at the same time.

System Requirements: Pentium 233 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Win95

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